Mansion on the Hill

Melissa Anderson on Alexander Payne’s Nebraska

Alexander Payne, Nebraska, 2013, HD video, black-and-white, sound, 115 minutes.

AFTER EXCURSIONS to California’s Santa Ynez Valley for Sideways (2004) and Hawaii for The Descendants (2011), Alexander Payne returns to his home state for Nebraska. Admirers of the director, a proud Omahan who set his first three films—Citizen Ruth (1996), Election (1999), and About Schmidt (2002)—in that city, frequently praise Payne’s unerring regionalism. Detractors point to Payne’s reliance on noxious condescension toward his characters, often hypocritically mitigated by sticky sentimentality. Though I don’t consider myself an unequivocal member of either camp—I detest the smugness of About Schmidt but appreciate the complex teenage heroines of Election and The DescendantsNebraska, despite a few pleasures, strikes me as Payne’s most cartoonish, one-dimensional work.

Payne’s sixth film is the first for which he does not have a writing credit and the second, after Citizen Ruth, not to be adapted from a novel—the script is by first-time screenwriter Bob Nelson. It is also his first in black-and-white. (Works named after the Cornhusker State seem destined to be rendered in monochrome; see the cover of Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 album.) It opens in Billings, Montana, where Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an addled seventy-something alcoholic stripped of his driver’s license, is seen walking alongside the highway in twenty-eight-degree weather. Falling for a bogus sweepstakes announcement he received in the mail, the old man plans to trek all the way to Lincoln, Nebraska, to claim one million dollars in prize money. “They can’t say it if it’s not true,” Woody guilelessly protests to the younger of his two sons, David (Will Forte), who tries to convince him otherwise. But David, eager for a respite from his rudderless life, decides to drive his dad 900 miles to Lincoln, with an unplanned stop in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne (a fictional locale played by Plainview, Nebraska).

The father-son road trip also provides viewers temporary relief from Kate (June Squibb), Woody’s vituperative wife. When not referring to her spouse as “a son of a bitch” or an “old drunk,” Kate speaks as if she were Ann Landers, reprimanding an especially hapless advice seeker in the 1950s; in one outburst alone, Woody is a “dumb cluck,” “stubborn as a mule,” and has “lost all [his] marbles.” Her splenetic eruptions, whether vulgar or cornpone, are played for laughs to increasingly diminishing returns, hitting rock bottom during a scene at the cemetery where many of Woody’s immediate family members are buried: The matriarch lifts up her dress to reveal to a dead would-be swain what he missed out on.

Kate’s bush—or at least the suggestion of it; Squibb is shot from behind—typifies Nebraska’s wearying reliance on unseemly body parts or body types for comic relief. Woody and David hunt for the former’s missing teeth along the railroad tracks in Rapid City, South Dakota; the sheer mass of two of Woody’s nephews instantly signals their cretinism.

Yet there are moments of genuine warmth in Payne’s film. A waitress, one of the many nonprofessional actors the director likes to cast in bit parts in his movies, sweetly reminds the Grants to help themselves to the soup and salad bar. Onscreen for a mere five minutes, a wonderful performer named Angela McEwan, who plays the coproprietor of Hawthorne’s local newspaper and a one-time love interest of Woody’s, sympathetically explains to David the etiology of his father’s dipsomania: “It happens early around here—there’s nothing much else to do.” Her words remain the most gracious and nonjudgmental in a film too quick to clumsily deride.

Nebraska opens in limited release November 15.